NOTE: I’m grateful for everyone who stepped up over the years to lead discussion sessions at ScienceOnline conferences. This post is not about where we’ve been, but about where we might go. We are always looking for ways to improve!
Additional note: I’m not saying that all sessions have to be like this. What I am asking us to consider, is how to have good moderators for the un-conference discussion sessions. There are other sessions that are more geared toward hearing from the experts and asking questions. Both are good. We need a new name for the second type, so that attendees know what to anticipate.
There’s been a good deal of discussion on Twitter and in the ScienceOnline2013 feedback form about what makes for a good moderator at the ScienceOnline un-conferences.
I’d like to talk about some ideas that I have that may help move us forward.
Let’s first remember the core values that are the distinctives for ScienceOnline un-conference sessions. Namely, that we prioritize conversation, discussion, and shared learning. We do this by valuing each voice in the room.
I think first and foremost a moderator should be an excellent facilitator. This means someone who recognizes that the other people in the room are the ones who are the experts and who are the heart of the discussion. The moderator should be comfortable enough with a topic to ask questions, guide a discussion, but (importantly!) not be the central speaker. The moderator also needs to be someone strong enough to (politely but firmly) step in and move the conversation from one person to someone else. In a way, good moderators are almost invisible in that they enable the conversation and are trained to be neutral; they keep the discussion focused and moving (and, by the way, we have had some TERRIFIC moderators over the years).
I would like to see a corps of moderators trained in best practices to facilitate the discussions at ScienceOnline. Some of the people who have been leading sessions would be more valuable as participants and not as the moderator. The moderator should enable the discussion but not contribute (very much) to it. We need the real contributors to the conversation sitting in the room, not standing and moving the microphone.
The role of the kind of moderator that I’m describing is important! But it is a little different than some of the ways we have looked at moderators in our conferences in the past. Often, moderators were people who were concerned or knowledgeable about a topic, proposed a session, and then “led” it as a moderator. What I’m proposing is to help keep the role of moderator more as a facilitator than a content communicator. Listening to all the comments we’ve received, I think well-trained, well-coached moderators could really make the sessions more effective and focused.
Think about other arenas where moderators are effective. In those situations, it is not the moderator who brings the content, it is the ones that the moderator asks the questions of.
This is not to say that we haven’t had great discussions, sessions and conversations over the past seven years. We are always looking to improve and grow. I think being very specific about the role of the moderator is a way toward better sessions and discussions.
I would like to suggest that we start to use the wiki (or the soon to be announced Discussion forum on the ScienceOnline.com site) as a place to cultivate IDEAS without names already attached (as potential “session leaders”). This is a way to be more inclusive, since anyone should feel free to talk about the idea in more detail and not feel like they are intruding on something that someone has already claimed. You should feel free to put your name to your comments, but I would prefer if we do not try to name or suggest who should lead a session at this point in the discussion. In fact, most of the people who are currently suggested would be better to have in the room as a participant than as a moderator—we want to hear what they have to contribute to the discussion because they are a good resource!
Of course there has always been the assumption that if you moderate a session then you will have a guaranteed spot at the conference. So what happens if you are interested in a topic, and would be a vital contributor, but are not a moderator? Stay tuned for more info about the process for registration. We know this has been a challenging process and we are working on ways to improve. In other words, take the pressure off “getting a spot” by putting your name with a topic and just focus on what would be good ideas for session conversations.
Also, keep in mind that in developing the programs for ScienceOnline conferences, we listen carefully to not only the wiki suggestions, but also the conference feedback forms, online conversations, and email. We listen all year. We listen in various formats. We know that not everyone is comfortable with the wiki, so it is not the sole means of programming suggestions that we consider.
I’m excited about how we can improve our conversations by considering how we think about moderators, participants, and topics. Hopefully this will yield the most rich and rewarding discussions for everyone in the room.
At least, that’s what I think. What about you?